I recently booked my flights for an upcoming Hawaii trip later this year. For this journey, my girlfriend and I will be trying out United's newest Polaris First Class (as well as EconomyPlus). The entire journey is completely paid for with points, costing ~66k Chase UR points per person for the round-trip.
Due to our busy work schedules, we are only able to visit Oahu (Honolulu) this time. Our itinerary will be a simple
SFO - HNL round-trip flight.
For those interested in island-hopping, I will cover later in the article on how to do it for free!
What We're Flying
I usually start the search by looking on Google Flights to get a sense of the airlines that fly to my destination, the fares they are charging, and what plane types are being used on the routes.
I was pleasantly surprised to see United using their Boeing 777-300ER wide-body jets for this route. This is a plane type usually reserved for long-haul international routes or premium transcontinental routes like SFO-JFK, and sport United's latest and most premium product. I will cover this in more detail below:
United Polaris First Class:
This is the same seat used for United's International Polaris Business Class offerings, and is United's latest and most premium product. On domestic flights, these are marketed as "First Class" seats. On the 777-300ER, there is a total of 60 Polaris seats - 28 in the smaller forward cabin, and 32 in the rear cabin. I usually prefer the forward cabin as there is less foot traffic during boarding (this is where during boarding you turn left while your friends not in the points game turn right 🤣).
It's critical to note that not all Polaris seats are equal. Most importantly, odd-numbered rows provide much better privacy as they are the seats further away from the aisle. Odd-numbered window seats are my favorite, although odd-number center seats are also great for couples since it allows them to sit close together. Refer to these pictures for comparison:
As a side note, check out my previous review of the SFO Polaris Lounge:
This is equivalent to what we know as "Premium Economy" on long-haul international flights. However, for domestic flights, United is simply selling them as EconomyPlus seats, and not as a separate cabin class. This is great because on the 777-300ERs, rows 20-35 are all sold as extra leg-room EconomyPlus, but if you choose the seats in row 20-22, you will actually sit in what is usually Premium Economy (2-4-2 configuration), instead of the regular Economy (3-4-3 configuration). The downside to this, however, is that unlike real Premium Economy, you do not get things such as extra checked bag, meal, etc.
Lastly, double check your seat selection with SeatGuru.com, as they provide you with all the pros and cons of every seat (e.g. missing outlet, no window, extra leg-room etc.)
How We Booked
Now to the most important part - how to book this using points! I want to preface by mentioning the following:
- For using airline miles directly, there are alternatives such as through Air Canada, Aeroplan, Avianca LifeMiles, United MileagePlus etc.
- This is definitely not the "cheapest" redemption, but doing it using our method allowed maximum flexibility, along with a few other benefits.
- Search for cash fares on United's website, book roundtrip directly with Amex Platinum (5x on Airfare).
- Using Chase Sapphire Preferred's Pay-Yourself-Back feature, cash out your dining and other eligible expenses (at 1.25cpp) to match the cash price you paid.
- Flexibility: Instead of hunting for award space, I can just find an available cash fare seat and book immediately.
- Insurance: Booking round-trip itinerary on the Amex Platinum makes you eligible for trip/baggage insurance and travel protection benefits.
- Cost: Based on my search of available award space from United or other partners, the price using points directly isn't the best deal.
- Additional Earnings: By booking a paid flight, you will earn elite qualifying miles and sectors, which can help if you are chasing status. Additionally, cash fares earn you 5x MR point. You do not earn any of this if booked directly with points.
-$644 SFO-HNL Polaris First
-$289 HNL-SFO EconomyPlus ($174 Economy + $115 upgrade with checked-bag)
-$933 or 74,640 Chase UR points (booked through Chase Travel portal directly or via Pay-Yourself-Back for 1.25cpp)
+4,665 MR points (5x using Amex Platinum)
+3,850 MileagePlus earnings (paid flights earn miles)
+8,515 miles earned
Effective Cost of Round-trip (per person):
74,640-8,515 = 66,125 UR points
Is it a good deal? If we had paid for the same flight completely using cash (no points/miles), it would've cost us
$933 + $35 (checked luggage) = $968 total per person. This gives our redemption a value of:
$968 / 66,125 points = $0.0146 / point
Considering the fact that I had already downgraded my Chase Sapphire Reserve to the Preferred and still able to get almost
1.5cpp redemption value, this is a pretty good deal! Of course, if you (or your player 2) have the Sapphire Reserve, you will only need
62,200 UR points (as opposed to
74,640, an additional saving of
12,440 points), giving you an even better redemption value of
1.8cpp! In addition, if you are chasing status (I'm not), then booking this way works to your advantage:
Could I have done better? Probably. However, given that we prioritize convenience and flying on specific dates that work for us, this was a solid option. There are many alternatives we could've tried, including booking via other United travel partners or even just flying economy. Here are a few examples of some alternatives I explored:
Using United miles directly is a terrible deal as you would be getting less than
1cpp on your redemption, so if you have Chase UR points, it would be better to book the same flight directly through the travel portal instead of transferring the points over to United MileagePlus (and you get to earn extra miles!).
However, there is a use case for redeeming via this program. For round-trip flights booked completely using points, the United Excursionist perk allows you to add on a third destination in the same region for free. Therefore, you can do something like the following:
San Francisco - Oahu (Award Flight)
Oahu - Maui (FREE)
Maui - San Francisco (Award Flight)
I have covered the excursionist booking process in more detail in this earlier post.
Air Canada Aeroplan
The same flights only cost HALF the amount of points when booked via Aeroplan. This is great because both Amex MR and Chase UR points can be transferred to the Air Canada Aeroplan program for redemption, allowing you to pool your points from multiple bank currencies together. If booking economy, this would be a much better deal (although you do have to pay a little more in taxes). Unfortunately, there were no business/first class award space available on any of the dates I searched.
Although LifeMiles usually has one of the best rates for long haul international Star Alliance award flights, it is not as competitive when it comes to redeeming for domestic US flights. In this case there is no business/first availability, and economy is more expensive (tax and booking-wise) compared to just going through United.
That being said, LifeMiles is a transfer partner of many common programs such as Amex MR, Capital One miles, Citi ThankYou points, etc. Additionally, the program often have promotions where you get a transfer bonus (e.g. extra 25%) when transferring miles from the banks over to the LifeMiles program. So this can be a good option in certain situations.
Turkish Airlines Smiles & Miles Program
There are some insanely great redemption rates for domestic US travel. Their two main transfer partners are Capital One and Citi Thank You points. Since I don't have points in these two programs, it wasn't an option for me, but something to look into if you happen to have the points. Takeoff to Travel wrote an excellent post about his experience flying Polaris to Hawaii and Miles to Memories on how to book it using Turkish Smiles & Miles!
Hawaiian Airlines First Class
Hawaiian economy fares (cash/points) were reasonable and on-par with other carriers. However, the price for First Class non-stop flight (only this route has true lie-flat seats) was ridiculous and no non-stop award space. The only award redemptions were ones that required a layover, and you will be flying in older seats that are definitely not worth the price (for the points required you can fly on a 15-hour flight to Asia on a much more modern business class product). Not a good deal at all.
I do want to try Hawaiian First Class at some point though...
American Airlines First Class
Similar to Hawaiian, point redemptions do not make sense as they are not direct flights, have inferior products, and charge an insane amount of points.
How To Earn These Points?
As discussed in detailed above, there are many methods and currencies that will help you achieve the goal of flying Polaris First Class for free. Here are a couple card recommendations to help jumpstart your journey:
Chase Sapphire Preferred - currently 100k welcome offer
Chase Sapphire Reserve - currently 60k signup bonus
Amex Platinum - various offers with 100k+ signup bonus
Amex Gold - various offers ~75k bonus
Overall, spending 66k Chase UR points for a comfortable roundtrip to Hawaii is well worth it in my opinion. I also have been sitting on a lot of points due to the pandemic, so would gladly spend it for a (hopefully) great experience. I'll be posting a separate review after my trip, stay tuned!
UPDATE 10/14: due to equipment swap, our original 777-300ER was downgraded to a 737 MAX. As disappointing as it is, we rebooked (but no saver award space) and will be flying in Premium Economy (United PremiumPlus, sold as EconomyPlus on this route) on a 777-200.
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